The Astros, a star-studded team that entered the season as the consensus favorite to win the division, finished off a near wire-to-wire run in the American League West on Sunday afternoon, beating the Mariners, 7-1, to clinch their first division title in 16 years with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
"This never gets old," veteran catcher Brian McCann said. "I know everybody says it, but this is what we work for. This is why we put the hours in. This team is the most talented team I've ever been on. We're dynamic in every way and we're sitting here with two weeks to play and we're in the playoffs. That's incredible."
After missing out on the playoffs last year -- on the heels of a surprising postseason run in 2015 -- the Astros added veteran pieces in the offseason -- McCann, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran -- to a young core that included Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Dallas Keuchel.
The Astros roared out to a 42-16 start this season, but spun their wheels later in the summer when injuries decimated their starting rotation. They were forced to move a home series on the road in late August when Hurricane Harvey hammered Houston, but the team was buoyed days later when management pulled off a stunning trade for Justin Verlander, who threw a gem in his home debut Sunday.
"No matter what, whether it's two weeks to go in the season or the last day in the season, these games, you can feel it," said Verlander, who's 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts with Houston. "You know there's a little more at stake. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to be out there. I don't know if you could ask for more for your home debut for a chance to clinch the division. I don't know how often that happens, but it's pretty special."
The players mobbed each other on the infield after the final out was recorded before making a lap around the ballpark to slap hands with the fans. The celebration continued in the clubhouse, where manager A.J. Hinch delivered a message to the boys.
"I said thank you for everything that this season was about, and also to stay focused for what's ahead," Hinch said. "We have a chance to have a really special run here. By clinching now, we can line things up. We still want to have the best record in the league to have the No. 1 seed. I just told them I was proud of them because not everybody had to be here. There were people that had to choose to be here, either free agents or via trade, or the guys that had to go through the lean years here. To celebrate the first division championship in a long time is pretty special."
The Astros still have their sights on the best record in the AL, which they had for the majority of the season until the Indians passed them late during their 22-game winning streak. Houston is 1 1/2 games behind the Indians for home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.
The Astros will open the postseason with Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Thursday, Oct. 5. Their opponent and the location of that first game of the series will be determined by their final regular-season record.
"The way this team gets along, I don't think I've ever had the chemistry that we do have here," Reddick said. "Everybody gets along. Everybody is cheering everybody on and wants them to do better than we did before, the at-bat before. This is a whole locker room full of happy guys who pull for each other. We want everybody to do well."
This was the Astros' seventh division title in team history, and their first since they won four in a five-year stretch in the National League Central from 1997-01. The Astros also won the NL West in 1980 and 1986. When the Astros won the NL pennant in 2005, they did so as a Wild Card.
For homegrown Astros like Keuchel and Altuve, winning a division title is a proud achievement considering they were part of a 111-loss team only four years ago.
"Many miles," Keuchel said when asked how far the Astros have come. "We were on the bottom step of the second floor staircase and, man, we're on the top floor. We're going to hope to continue this and take a deep playoff run and hopefully we'll bring home the Astros' first World Series."